I see her getting off the train, eyes narrowed against the sun, an Army surplus shirt tied around her waist, rucksack hanging off one shoulder. I wave to her but she doesn’t see me. She looks straight at me, but she doesn’t see me.
“Lucy! Luce – Lucinda!”
A line appears between her eyebrows, and then disappears. “Jesus-fucking-Christ,” she screams, running towards me, oblivious to the angry glare from the mother standing behind her. “What the fuck have you done to your hair?”
“It’s blonde, that’s all.” My hand drifts up to my new hair, brushing it back, behind my ear. But it’s too short now, and it falls forward. “And short,” I add, needlessly.
The little line reappears on Lucy’s forehead, but she doesn’t say anything more about my hair. “So, what’s the plan? Please tell me it’s not gonna be L-plates and chocolate cocks? I’ll get back on the train.”
“No, no. Brian’s mother’s coming… God, I couldn’t… We’re having a picnic in the park.”
Lucy grabs my hand, the one without the ring, and squeezes. “Bollocks to that. I’ve travelled halfway down the country to see you. C’mon, there’s an offy over there – let’s get a bottle of vodka and fuck the rest of it off.”
And suddenly I’m laughing, and I realise how much I’ve missed her. I don’t mind my short hair anymore, or the fake nails, or the ring that’s just a little too big, a little too square. The sun is shining, and I’m with my best friend.
And I’m getting married tomorrow.
I let Lucy drag me to the off-licence and, although I make a show of resistance, we both know we’re not coming out empty handed.
Vivian, Brian’s mother, purses her lips when Lucy produces a bottle of vodka and another of spiced run from her bag, but doesn’t say anything. Perhaps she’s silenced by the squeals of delight from the other girls?
My hen do is small, which is fine, really. Vivian’s here, along with some of Brian’s female friends from school and his office, and a smattering of women I know from the Trust. And, of course, Lucy.
We find a spot in the park, Vivian sets out the food to her liking, and everyone starts chatting. Is this what a hen do is like? I’ve not been to one before. I suppose I had the same idea Lucy did – L plates and chocolate penises – but this is nice. Civilised. Sedate. Mature.
The sun sits above us, and then slowly begins to fall back down to earth, dragged towards the horizon.
“Tell us how you and Brian met,” one of the girls asks me.
She’s only being polite. Everyone knows the story by now. But still, they all sit up, grinning at me. My gaze slips away, landing on Lucy. She’s smoking, ignoring Vivian’s discreet coughs. She winks at me, and I’m laughing again, a bubble of happiness in my chest which swells until all I can do is laugh.
Everyone probably thinks I’m remembering how Brian and I met, and that’s ok. I don’t really mind what they think – not in an argumentative way, it’s just easier, isn’t it?
I start the story. I know how to tell it, too – where to pause, which words to emphasise to elicit a laugh or an awwww.
But this time it feels strange, the words uncomfortable in my mouth, like finding an unexpected piece of plastic in your lunchtime sandwich. God, I hope they can’t tell. The story of how I met Brian is cute, and everyone always says it shows we’re meant to be together. Vivian loves it. I can’t get it wrong.
I glance again at Lucy. She’s still smoking, but her face has gone still and she’s pulled her legs up to her chest, her free arm wrapped around her knees.
“Actually, Lucy and I were on a date when I met Brian,” I hear myself say – what am I saying? That’s not how the story begins.
Lucy’s eyebrows shoot up her forehead, but she doesn’t say anything. She just tilts her head slightly, watching me.
“I mean… Well, Lucy and I were at uni together, you know, and that’s where I met Brian,” I finish lamely. Why did I say Lucy and I were on a date? Alcohol and sun, probably, muddling me. Vivian was right, we should have kept the picnic dry.
But I remember how to tell the story. I begin running through it easily, answering questions and filling in detail without really thinking about it.
Instead, I’m thinking about Lucy.
Five years ago, when she was still pretending to be interested men, she’d been set up on a blind date. She was only a few months away from coming out, although I don’t think I realised it then. She had this blind date and she didn’t want to go, but for whatever reason she wouldn’t cancel it either.
It became a double date, her and this guy and me and Brian.
Lucy and I arrived at the restaurant; actually a pub that did meals, but Brian – I now know – likes the authenticity of a pub over the pretension of a restaurant. He was waiting for us, scowling at the bar. His friend was late, he explained. He was embarrassed, I could tell, and it wasn’t his fault he came across as dour. His friend never showed up, but the three of us ate and drank, and the whole thing was over by ten. He took my number, and left without giving me his.
It was awful, I realise suddenly.
It wasn’t silly or romantic – him nervous and shy, me friendly and smiling. It was awkward and painful and really, incredibly boring.
The sun disappears, and with it the other hens. I offer to walk Lucy to her hotel. She shrugs. She’s been quiet all afternoon. I wonder if she has a headache – her smoking and drinking picked up steam as the day wore on.
She’s walking beside me, smothered in angry silence. I don’t know what to say to her, so I don’t say anything. We eventually arrive at Lucy’s hotel, set back from the main road behind a high hedge.
“Thanks for coming.”
“Course I fucking came.”
She turns to leave.
My hand reaches out and grabs her arm, her skin warm, the heat of her pressing through her thin shirt, making my palm tingle. A sharp pain in the base of my stomach, strangely tense, pulling me in, towards it…
She steps closer to me. My hand’s still on her arm, and she has her hand on my hip. The pain in my stomach is hot now, aching, unfamiliar. Powerful and… delicious.
I step back.
Her hand drops.
“Do you need a taxi in the morning?” I ask.
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I know how to find you.”
She leaves me standing in the hotel car park. I feel sick. Too much sun, too much alcohol. And then my phone buzzes, and it’s Brian asking where I am. Vivian wants me back at her house.
I leave Lucy’s hotel, and head towards my future.